Thursday, 16 April 2015

Augmented Reality

In which I get all Von Trapp on your ass to explain ‘The Devil’s Interval’

'Le Songe de Tartini' ('Tartini's Dream') by Louis-Léopold Boilly
One of the most fun things about writing music for games is the variety. I’m sure I’ve dribbled on aplenty about how entrancing I find the work game developers do in the way that they create entire worlds for players to navigate and interact with, but the sheer miscellany of said worlds presented me by the various developers with whom I have worked intrigues me just as much.
Indeed, over the course of the past five years I’ve written music for games in which you are lost on weird and far-flung planets in Sticky Nicky; taking on the mantle of a pickle-throwing conquistador in Pickle Frenzy, escaping post-apocalyptic city scenes in Paradigm Shift, transporting power from the future in GunMonkeys, and slotting shapes into place in a geometric wonderland in Division Cell.

In fact, the only constant is one of my own usage; a musical device of which – it must be said by accident rather than design – I have become extremely fond: the ‘augmented fourth’, or ‘Devil’s Interval’. I don’t wish to be all ‘music-nerd’ (at least not overtly) yet here I cannot avoid a little techno-babble. I will try and skip through this bit with the minimum use of ‘lingo,’ and instead invite you to do the song from The Sound of Music. You know the one, ‘Doe, a Deer…’? I have had to write it like that because obviously ‘a doe’ is the correct name for a lady deer but in line with the ‘solfège,’ (the ‘Do,’ the ‘Re’ and the ‘Mi’ that feature in the music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing), it would need to be written as ‘Do a Deer’ which might, once posted on the internet, lead to me receiving ‘interest’ from the RSPCA.)

Oh, cripes, the point… I was busy getting all 'Von Trapp' on your asses… So whether at work, internet café or in a darkened room at home, you’re all singing, right?

Piano keyboard showing the 'solfège' note names
Do(e),’ a deer, a female deer,
Re,’ a drop of golden sun,
Mi,’ a name, I call myself,
Fa’ a long, long way to go,
So(l)’ a needle pulling thread…

And you can stop there. Cos what we’re after in order to complete our quest for The Devil’s Interval is the space between the ‘Do,’ and a note in between ‘Fa’ and ‘So’. Sing them. SING THEM.

‘Do’ to ‘Fa’… then ‘Do’ to ‘So’… then ‘Do’ to the note in between ‘Fa’ and ‘So’…
If you can find that, and you’re not more perplexed than all those scientists just before they located the Higgs Boson, then you’re doing well, and can award yourself 1 x Gold Star.
Anyway, back to some musical theory. As I was taught it (having never been part of a family of singing Austrians), ‘Do’ is the solfège name for the ‘tonic’ (i.e. the first note of any given scale) and the notes of that (major) scale progress up through various nerdy names (supertonic, mediant) to the fourth note or ‘subdominant’ (read ‘Fa’ in the above example) and then the dominant (‘So’), the technical name for which is the dominant (before going on to submediant (‘La,’ in Von Trapp world) and leading note (‘Ti’) ahead of the next instance of the tonic.
Good. The intervals created between the tonic (‘Do’) and the subdominant (‘Fa’) create what’s known as a ‘perfect fourth,’ and that between the tonic and (So) is a ‘perfect fifth,’ the use of both of which tend to sound all medieval trumpet fanfare-y cos that’s mainly all that trumpets and horns without modern valves were able to do, hence why Michael Kamen put lots of them at the start of his theme for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and stuff like that. Therefore when you ‘bloat’ the interval between 1 and 4, it becomes an ‘augmented fourth,’ and at this point the more astute (and still awake) of you will agree that also as a wizened 1 to 5 it is also known as a ‘diminished fifth’. In essence it is the same thing (however I am certain that pedants will be at pains to stress that that strictly speaking it depends from which direction it is approached). It also comes under the heading ‘tri-tone’ as it is three full tones (no semitones) up from the tonic note. But enough science. Either way, it is THE DEVIL’S INTERVAL and whilst (we understand) that it was Actually Banned in Olden Times by churchy types (on pain of excommunication, or 'death by hot pokers' or something), it ultimately became a popular ‘device’ frequently employed from the Romantic era onwards to denote diabolic evil and chaos. Franz Liszt used it to signify Hell in his Dante Sonata, and I’m fairly sure there’s an example in Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung somewhere, too. Maybe less scarily you can find it in ‘Maria’ from West Side Story, although I never met her and she might just have been awful. It also pops up in the the ‘Back to the Future’ theme (more as part of the tri-tone as a result of the chord progression than a 'menacing' interval). Which is pretty cool ‘cos not only is Back to the Future ace but if there isn’t something other-worldly about time travel then we must be doing it wrong.

I gather from the internet that the subject of this musical anecdote was first been designated as a 'dangerous' interval by a bloke called Guido of Arezzo, a leading music theorist of the Medieval era widely regarded as the inventor of modern musical notation. It was old Guido's work that is believed to have led to the first instance of the phrase 'Diabolus in Musica' – 'the devil in music'. Like I said, as it has turned out, whether personal preference or due to the subject matter of the games for which I have written, the Devil’s Interval has wormed its satanic way into quite a few of my tunes. And I’m not sure I have the paperwork for the sale of my soul…

I hope you can hear the sense of looming menace it invokes, whether actively, aggressively malevolent or passively haunting, there’s something not right about it, and it tugs at the edges of your psyche, rolling and incessant.

I guess it became known as ‘The Devil’s Interval’ because it was all ‘senestre’… for people in 'the olden times’ there was nowhere to put it; no way of quantifying it, it had no place in the conventional, sensible music of the age. Which is very possibly why I like it so much.

Maybe try it on your Auntie some time.


GunMonkeys: Because You Know I’m Better

Magma Monsters: theme from Magma Monsters

Fangus the Were-Baby: Fangus the Were-Baby


  1. Thanks Mr B - now all I'm singing is 'do a deer'!

  2. Haha good job they're not on the 'endangered species' list I guess... There is another self-penned version that starts: 'oh, a beer'...


David F Burrows
Composes music for videogames. Dabbles in topiary. Frequently mistaken for Doctor Who.